Agents Speak Out, Divided On Marriott’s New Approach To Selling Luxury

by Doug Gollan

Paris Marriott Champs Elysees Hotel in France. Photo: Moonik

Marriott International’s decision to create a single sales force to represent its eight luxury brands, mixing JW Marriott, W Hotels and Autograph Collection with Luxury Collection, St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton/Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Bulgari and EDITION, is drawing a mixed reaction from travel agents.

In a further update, Marriott disclosed it hasn’t yet decided how it will handle its current loyalty programs for agents who sell luxury, Starwood Luxury Privileges and Ritz-Carlton STARS. “These programs are continuing to operate as they always have. Looking ahead, these programs will be reviewed as we move through all our integration activities. (Travel agent) input will be sought out in advance if any adjustments are being considered for either program,” a spokesperson told Travel Market Report. 

Yesterday, TMR exclusively revealed Marriott’s plans to move to a single luxury sales force, and agents were anxious to offer their input on both topics.

“It’s one company and they should have one luxury sales team for most (of the luxury brands)…JW Marriott, Autograph and W should have their own team because they have a different customer base from the others,” said Michael Holtz, CEO of Smartflyer. In terms of whether or not Starwood’s Luxury Privileges and Ritz-Carlton STARS should be combined, he said, “All of these brand purists need to look at reality…SPG and Marriott Rewards will merge…(Marriott) must have one program (for agents).”

Jack Ezon, CEO of Ovation Vacations, agreed with Holtz about the agent loyalty programs. “It makes sense to combine STARS and Luxury Privileges...I think STARS is a stronger program in general. Luxury Privileges is nice in that it is broader and gives you perks at hotels you may not ordinarily book outside of the core luxury segment.” 

However, Ezon joined others in voicing concern about the single sales team, noting, “I think you need to remove JW Marriott from the mix. It makes absolutely no sense to have JW Marriott have anything to do with Luxury Collection, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton. They are a completely different customer,” he said. “No matter how much you want to say JW Marriott is a luxury brand, it is not. It is a premium brand with a different business mix and model. You can’t compare (Luxury Collection’s) Gritti Palace in Venice to JW Marriott.”

He added, “We currently have the most amazing support from the St. Regis/Luxury Collection side and The Ritz-Carlton side, and I really hope that does not change.”

“Personally I am not in favor of having a single sales force rep for so many different brands. We've seen what happens with cruise lines that do this, and typically one of the brands get short changed as the rep can't possibly know everything about all of them,” Stacy Small, CEO of Elite Travel International told TMR, adding, “We have an amazing working relationship with both our Ritz-Carlton and Starwood reps and rely so heavily on them to be able to do the best possible job for our clients. I think it is being a bit shortsighted to expect the salesperson who truly knows luxury in the form of Ritz-Carlton or St Regis to suddenly be an expert on all things W, Autograph Collection and JW Marriott.”

Asked about agent loyalty programs, she said, “Ritz-Carlton has done an incredible job with the STARS program and I would love to see that remain as is. We really focus on pushing business to the brands that appreciate our business and take extra-special care of our clients due to our loyalty (and) production. I would prefer to see things stay as they are, but understanding we live in a world of constant change, I hope they will not give one person way more than they can handle, making it a challenge for them to devote the needed time to help us continue to grow our business.”

Rudi Steele of Rudi Steele Travel said he is “all for” having a single luxury sales force covering Marriott’s luxury brands, but noted, “the good loyal team should not be replaced by young whippersnappers. People like (Starwood’s) Mary Gallo cannot be replaced.”

Jack Bloch of JB’s World Travel Consultants said, “I think a single sales force is a logical move as long as it handles only the luxury brands…Since Marriott is the parent umbrella entity for all the (luxury) brands, it make sense to unify the sales team to impart the marketing strategy of the luxury brands as a cohesive team.” In terms of agent loyalty programs, he would like to see a combined program along the lines of Luxury Privileges.

Still, some agents were very positive about having a single luxury sales team. “I think it is great that (JW Marriott and Autograph) now will be included. There are some great properties in the JW brand, including The Essex House in NYC, Grosvenor House in London, and the JW in Orlando. These properties are much different than Courtyard and Fairfield and should be treated that way,” Jeffrey Traugot of Traugot Travel told TMR. He said, “The people currently on these sales teams both with Marriott and Starwood are incredibly knowledgeable, accessible, and some of the best in the business. Of course it is important to make sure there are enough people in this sales force to handle the products and the communication with the travel agents. If they spread themselves too thin then it defeats the purpose.”

As to the agent loyalty programs, Traugot calls them “very similar. Both include breakfast daily for two people per room, $100 hotel/resort credit, and most importantly recognition from the hotel that the booking is coming from a top agent/top agency. Whether it is combined or kept separate, it makes little difference as long as they keep the program. What is nice about the program is that it extends to hotels not included in (consortia and credit card) programs to give the travel agent exclusive benefits not offered elsewhere.”

Some agents are taking a pragmatic approach. Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg of Valerie Wilson Travel puts it this way: “Quite simply my advice (to Marriott) would be to focus on what differentiates them in today's marketplace and how to leverage it. For instance, STARS is an exceptional program. The advisors know the clients value it, and the hotels can execute on it. It is a win-win-win! In this day and age of email overload and digital fatigue, having the opportunity and access to connect with a dedicated salesperson or team via many means of communication is critical. This sales force needs to be empowered to assist those travel professionals who daily assist our mutual customer. It sounds old-fashioned, but it is a realistic view of success for the future in these higher-yield brands.”

Yet another agent doesn’t believe feedback from the trade will influence how Marriott handles things one way or another, though. UNIGLOBE The Premiere Group’s Norman Payne told TMR, “They will do what is logical, practical and efficiently cost-effective. Our opinions will not factor into the equation.”

What most travel agents want, Payne said, “is a salesperson or sales team that is accessible, responsive, able to solve problems swiftly, anticipate needs, exceed expectations and not resort to purloining our clients—real partners, not potential rivals. Simplifying the STARS (and) Luxury Privileges into one all-encompassing plan would make ideal sense and be seen as a beneficial feature all round.”

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